A headwind is when a fast-moving wind blows against the direction a plane is flying in. Conversely, a tailwind is when air blows in the direction of a plane.

Predictably, headwinds hinder planes during cruising by increasing the drag acting on them, while tailwinds increase a plane’s speed during cruising by reducing drag.

That being said, headwinds are beneficial when a plane is taking off or landing; and tailwinds hinder planes during takeoff and landing.

As a result, both headwinds and tailwinds have their uses.

Although headwinds and tailwinds are usually at a stable speed, wind shear, which is a rapid change in the wind’s direction or speed, can drastically disrupt them.

What is a Headwind?

A headwind is when the wind blows against the direction a plane is traveling in.

Since headwinds blow in the opposite direction of the plane, they slow the plane down.

So headwinds are considered more undesirable since they cause the plane to burn more fuel when flying, which increase travel time and operating costs.

What is a Tailwind?

Tailwinds blow in the same direction as a plane, which means that a tailwind is the opposite of a headwind.

Tailwinds push the aircraft forward from the tail, increasing its total speed and letting a plane fly faster and complete its journey with lower fuel consumption and lower costs. 

The Difference Between a Headwind and a Tailwind

A headwind blows against the direction of a plane, while a tailwind blows in the direction of the plane.

Headwinds increase a plane’s travel time and operational costs, while tailwinds reduce both.

So, headwinds are generally considered to be a negative, while tailwinds are considered a positive, as a plane spends more time cruising than at any other time.

When is a Headwind Beneficial?

A headwind is beneficial during takeoffs and landings, since airfoil moving into headwinds generates more lift than air moving through calm wind or even with a tailwind of equal speed. 

In fact, pilots and air traffic controllers prefer taking off and landing planes in the direction of a runway that provides a headwind.

Aircraft carriers also take advantage of headwinds by turning towards them when planes need to take off or land.  

When is a Tailwind Beneficial?

A tailwind is beneficial when a plane is cruising, as tailwinds reduce the amount of fuel used and increase the plane’s speed, so a plane will reach its destination faster and more economically.

When is a Headwind Detrimental?

A headwind is detrimental to a plane when cruising, as the headwind increases drag, which then increases the flight time. 

When is a Tailwind Detrimental?

 A tailwind is detrimental during takeoffs and landings.

The tailwind decreases the plane’s climb gradient, which is the ratio between distance travelled over the ground and altitude gained.

The result is that planes reach their desired altitude during landings and expected level during landings later than expected. 

Additionally, planes need more runway to compensate for tailwinds during a takeoff. So pilots prefer taking off when there isn’t a tailwind. 

How Headwinds and Tailwinds Are Calculated

Headwinds and tailwinds are calculated with the following equation: 

Headwind/tailwind speed =wind speed * cos(α )

  • α is the wind’s angle from the plane’s direction
  • α is calculated by subtracting the heading of the plane from the heading of the wind. 


Suppose for calculating the headwind, the wind speed is 10 kt at an angle of 140 degrees, and the plane has a heading of 110 degrees. α will be 140-110=30. 

Plug the values in the formula: headwind = 110*cos30.

The answer is 8.66.  

What is a Crosswind?

A crosswind is when wind blows from the side of an aircraft.

Crosswinds can affect light operations, fuel burn, and passenger comfort.

The Relationship Between Jet Streams, Headwinds and Tailwinds

Headwind and tailwind refer to the wind direction a plane experiences during flight.

Headwinds and tailwinds vary depending on time, location, and the plane’s direction. 

In contrast, jet streams are naturally occurring strong winds that flow west to east over the earth, and aren’t defined by their relation to the plane. 

The jet streams can provide a plane with a tailwind or headwind, depending on the plane’s direction. The jet streams exist regardless of the plane’s direction. 

What is the Relationship Between Wind Shear, Headwinds and Tailwinds?

Wind shear is a change of wind speed or direction over short distances, either horizontally or vertically.

Wind shears are normally caused by temperature changes or density gradients, and occur at both low and high altitudes

Wind shears can drastically change the headwind or tailwind a plane experiences.

The change in tailwinds and headwinds could increase or decrease a plane’s lift.

Pilots normally take corrective actions wherever they encounter wind shears. 

In conclusion:

  • Headwinds and tailwinds describe fast-moving winds that travel against and in the direction of the plane, respectively.
  • Headwinds hinder planes during flight through increased drag, while tailwinds assist planes by reducing drag.
  • Headwinds are more beneficial for planes during takeoffs and landings.
  • Conversely, tailwinds are undesirable for planes during takeoffs and landings.
  • Headwinds and tailwinds are defined by their relation to the plane’s direction.
  • In contrast, the jet streams are a series of fast-moving winds over the earth’s surface, and aren’t defined by their relation to a plane’s direction of travel.
John Myers - Flight Instructor
Certified Flight Instructor

John is a highly skilled and dedicated Certified Flight Instructor with a passion for teaching students of all ages how to fly, and takes enormous pride and satisfaction seeing his students become licensed pilots.

After holding various roles in the aviation industry as a pilot, John decided to become a flight instructor, and for the past decade has worked at several flight schools that offer pilot training programs of all levels, due to the rewarding nature of the job.

John has been quoted or mentioned in major publications, including Chron, Flying Mag, and National Review.